Catwoman soulstealer, p.20
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.20
 

           Sarah J. Maas
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  After Catwoman began to push back—again and again. Punch, jab, duck, kick—

  They held nothing back.

  And as Catwoman took the offensive, while Tigris was forced to yield step after step, he knew who was going to win.

  Tigris fought beautifully, like a blade made flesh.

  But Catwoman fought like she meant it. As if her fear of losing wasn’t death, but something else. Something that fueled her, focused her.

  Luke saw it coming: the blow that would end it.

  Tigris threw a punch—the strength behind it enough to shatter someone’s ribs—its form utter perfection.

  Catwoman let her think the blow was going to land. And as it neared her stomach, she whirled.

  One hand locked onto Tigris’s exposed arm. The other went around her back.

  With a grunt that even Luke heard, she flipped the assassin right over her shoulder. Slammed Tigris onto the three steps leading down from the veranda.

  Stone cracked; bone crunched.

  Tigris lay there for a heartbeat—stunned. Or broken, Luke didn’t know.

  Catwoman was on her instantly. And this time, a blade came out.

  She’d pulled a short sword from a hidden sheath down her back. He hadn’t even known one was built into her suit. The blade glinted brightly in the moonlight as she lifted it.

  Time to move. Luke fired a steel bolt from his suit’s arm.

  And as that blade came down, his bolt met the center of her sword.

  Catwoman cried out in surprise as her blade went flying into the grass. She whirled toward him, the lenses of her helmet seeming to glow with irritation.

  Luke approached, realizing that Tigris wasn’t moving because Catwoman had broken her spine, and said, “Don’t.”

  Catwoman remained where she was. “This doesn’t involve you.”

  Luke pointed his next bolt toward Catwoman’s face. “She might have valuable information.”

  “I’m sure she does,” Catwoman said. “But it doesn’t matter to me.”

  “You’ll kill her for stepping on your territory?”

  Tigris let out a low laugh. “You’re dead,” she said in a thick accent.

  Catwoman turned back to the assassin, head angling in that way he knew meant trouble.

  But faster than either Luke or Catwoman could move, Tigris brought her hand up to her mouth, grimacing in pain at the movement, and—

  Poison.

  Catwoman lunged, as if she’d rip the capsule from Tigris’s mouth—

  The assassin’s chest rose and fell rapidly. “You’re a dead woman walking after what you stole.” She laughed at Catwoman.

  Then—nothing.

  Her dark eyes went still. Unseeing.

  For a long moment, Catwoman stared at Tigris’s body. She was a body now. A corpse.

  “Shit,” she breathed.

  “You were about to kill her anyway,” Luke said coldly, his helmet deepening his voice.

  Catwoman stood, pushing off Tigris’s broken, limp body, and retrieved her sword from the grass. A smooth motion had the blade again sheathed and hidden down the back of her suit. “I was going to give her an injury that would keep her out of my way for a while.”

  “The broken spine wasn’t enough?”

  He could have sworn she winced. “That was a mistake.”

  He couldn’t quite process it. There was a corpse between them as Luke remained atop the steps, Catwoman in the grass.

  Catwoman at his parents’ house, his childhood home. On the lawn where he and his parents had played soccer, where his mom had pitched him baseballs, where they’d had picnics and parties, where he’d gone sledding down to the pond.

  She did not belong here. In this place. With his parents sleeping only a floor up—

  His parents. If his mom found a body on the estate grounds, if she even heard about it, she’d demand answers. Ones he wanted to keep her far, far away from.

  And it would be such a profoundly shitty way to repay them for their help tonight.

  Not that Catwoman knew. Not that she had any idea that the man standing before her was the same billionaire’s son she’d stolen from twice now and had tried to rob a third time.

  Luke said, “We need to move the body off the grounds for the cops to find.”

  “No handcuffs for me?” A sly, husky question.

  “She attacked you and then killed herself. But if you want to go to jail, sure.”

  Silence.

  “Consider this a favor. I don’t arrest you, and you help me get this body off the grounds.”

  “Why?”

  He pointed to the house. “Because the Fox family is one of the few decent ones in this city, and I’m not going to risk the League sniffing around here for information about their prized killer.” The thought of the League coming here, grabbing his parents, was enough to make him nauseated.

  “So noble,” she snorted, but moved to Tigris’s booted feet. Picked them up. “Well?”

  Luke grimaced beneath his mask, debating. Drained from her fight and with her hands occupied, she’d be an easy target, and he had all the evidence he needed to bring her in, and yet…

  She had kept the fight silent. Had moved it outside. Perhaps to keep the risks, the casualties, contained. And whether that was because she also knew that his parents were good people, Luke appreciated it.

  He stepped up to Tigris’s head and slid his gloved hands under her shoulders. “There are some woods by the road, just beyond the property border.”

  * * *

  —

  Luke realized within seconds that while Tigris appeared slender, beneath the loose black clothes, her body was packed with dense muscle. Heavy muscle.

  He and Catwoman didn’t speak as they hauled Tigris’s corpse between them, across the lawn, past the formal gardens, through the dense thickets, and finally over the property border and into the woods beyond. He could have navigated it blind, but made sure to stop every now and then, as if assessing some mental map of his surroundings.

  And only when they were perhaps a quarter mile into the pines did Luke say to her, “Here is good. The road isn’t too far off.”

  To his surprise, Catwoman laid the assassin’s feet down gently.

  He blew out a breath as he did so as well, the sound gobbled up by the cool night winds dancing in the trees around them, making the pines sway as if they were drunkenly dancing.

  She stared at the assassin. Long enough that Luke opened up a panel in his suit’s arm to send a covert call to GCPD. He punched in the first two numbers, and then—

  Soft, whispered Arabic filled the space between them.

  At first, he thought Tigris was still alive.

  But then he realized the lilting, beautiful words—they were coming from her. Catwoman.

  Her Arabic was almost perfect.

  He hadn’t heard it spoken so well since he’d returned. There was a slight American accent, the same as his own when he spoke it.

  He said nothing, lowering his hand from the panel in his arm. Terminating the call.

  She finished, kneeling to close Tigris’s open eyes with her gloved fingers.

  When Catwoman rose, she stared at the woman’s corpse for a long moment before she said, “She trained me at the League.”

  Every thought eddied out of Luke’s head.

  She’d been trained at the League, trained by Tigris herself. Which meant—

  Catwoman’s head lifted, the moonlight illuminating the lenses over her eyes. “I am a ghūl—as she is. Was.” She flexed her gloved hands, as if shaking the feel of the assassin from them. “It’s what League assassins call themselves. When our training is complete, our final task is to dig our own future graves and recite our own final prayers. We lie in them from dusk until daw
n. And when we emerge from the earth afterward…we are ghūls. Wraiths.”

  He didn’t ask how many of them ever made it back to their gravesites to fill those holes in the ground.

  She wasn’t just some skilled jewel thief.

  A trained killer.

  From the League of Assassins.

  “The prayer,” she went on, more to herself than him. “It was her final rite. What is owed to any wraith.”

  “Yet you didn’t want to kill her tonight.”

  Even though Tigris had come here to kill her—for something she’d stolen.

  Silence.

  Luke demanded, “If you’re in the League, why are you working with Harley and Ivy?”

  She studied him as if debating her answer. “I left.”

  Luke took a moment to process those words. “No one leaves the League.”

  “I did.”

  Hence the assassin after her. “Why?”

  “Nyssa and Talia al Ghūl have always striven to follow in their father’s footsteps.” An ecoterrorist maniac—not like Poison Ivy’s desire to save the planet, to coexist with plant and animal. No, the man wanted the earth wiped clean of all human life. Catwoman shrugged. “I found I no longer fit in.”

  Hence the warning the other week. That worse was coming, either as part of Nyssa and Talia’s agenda, or…to hunt the woman before him. “So you left,” he said.

  A slight nod.

  He wanted to see her face. Wanted to know who he was speaking to, who had fought like a black wind tonight, who had dared walk away from the League, dared defy it—

  “And as for why I’m working with Ivy and Harley…” A shrug. “Since I am no longer a part of the League, I need money to establish myself in Gotham.”

  Luke blinked, jaw clenching. Right. That.

  She went on, “I stole something valuable from Nyssa when I left.” Tigris’s warning echoed in his head. “I’ve been weighing options for potential buyers. But until I sell it, I’m low on funds.”

  “What about just getting a job?”

  She laughed quietly. “You’re terribly naive to say that.”

  Luke stiffened. But instead of lunging for her, he lifted his forearm and finally dialed the GCPD. He gave a clipped explanation that a body had been found at this specific location, hung up, and growled at her, “Don’t even think about running.”

  Because he was going to arrest her. Right now. He hit a button on his suit, the tech powering up, readying for the chase. His Bat-Cuffs clicked free from his Utility Belt.

  Another soft laugh. “Oh, I don’t think so.”

  His suit detected two others beside her. Right as Harley Quinn clenched two of those small circus-ball explosives—one in each hand—a gas mask covering her face. And Poison Ivy thumbed free one of the orchids from the vine snaking across her torso. Smoke rippled from it. Not to take him down but to cloud their escape.

  “Hi, handsome,” Ivy drawled. Harley grinned.

  Something sparkled at Catwoman’s fingertips.

  The necklace. The Fox necklace.

  When Tigris had slammed her into that case the second time, she must have swiped it. Too fast for even him to see.

  The diamonds burned with blue fire in the moonlight. “Thanks for this,” Catwoman said, and took a step back.

  Luke said tightly, “I have it on good authority that necklace is a fake.”

  He’d had a replica made yesterday. Cubic zirconia and painted brass.

  Total worth: a few hundred bucks.

  Catwoman let out a low laugh, the sound echoed by twin rumbles. Motorcycles. Parked on the road a few feet away. She stepped back into the smoke. “Oh, I know.”

  Then vanished.

  Luke lunged through the smoke, dodging trees before he reached the quiet road.

  She sped off into the night on the back of Harley Quinn’s motorcycle. Too fast for him to follow, even with the wings.

  He should have grabbed her. Should have handcuffed her to Tigris and waited until the cops came. Should have…He had no idea.

  A League assassin with a conscience.

  Here to sell something that the League would kill for and Gotham City’s underworld would line up to buy.

  His stomach turned. But even as it did, Luke recalled the way she’d fought. That low laugh. That frank, cool openness with which she spoke to him.

  And the heat that rose through him, stretching his skin tight over his bones. An aftereffect of battle, of adrenaline. Even though he hadn’t thrown a single punch. Even if he’d stood there, gawking, while she fought. Beautiful, graceful, and utterly off-limits.

  Trouble. He was in big, big trouble.

  Selina had been on the run for a month and a half.

  She’d taken money from Nyssa. Broken into the safe in her office and swiped her bank card out of her wallet, minutes before Selina had headed off on a mission for the League. She’d walked out of the compound right through the front doors.

  She didn’t know how long it had taken them to figure out who had done it. Probably Talia herself had pieced it together. But by now it would be clear that Selina had taken a train not to Greece like she’d been ordered, but to Switzerland, where she withdrew all of the account’s cash, set up a fancy new Swiss bank account, and became Holly Vanderhees.

  The hair, the nails, the clothes. The shoes, the bags, the jewels. The cars, the residences, the private plane. The last one was leased, of course, but all of it—the identity she’d built—purchased with Nyssa’s blood money. She only wished she’d had time to grab Talia’s, too.

  And what Selina had brought along with her, the payoff from that…Worth it. Utterly worth it.

  “So all of this trouble tonight,” Harley said over the motorcycle’s roar as they sped off into the night, “was over a fake?”

  Selina had known it was a trap. Whether Luke Fox and his stupid apologies knew his family had been used, she had no idea. Didn’t care.

  But it was interesting that Batwing cared about the Fox family. She stored that information away to puzzle over later.

  Batwing himself was a problem. Mostly because she liked him. He definitely filled out that suit, but she…she just liked him. That relentless drive to protect the innocents in this city, no matter the cost. To fight past his own demons to do so. Which meant he was absolutely lethal for everything she was working toward.

  And though she could tell he was equally intrigued by her, and could certainly use that to her advantage…

  “He threw down a challenge,” Selina said. “We couldn’t let it go unanswered.” Hence why she’d had Ivy and Harley remain behind. Going in for a fake necklace hadn’t been worth the risk. So they’d waited here, on the outskirts, to retrieve her.

  Tigris showing up had been unexpected.

  Oh, Nyssa and Talia must be mad. Furious. And with Shrike and Tigris now dead…

  “Get up, you pathetic worm.” Tigris’s burning dark eyes were barely visible beneath her hood. “Do you think our enemies give us breaks to catch our breath?”

  Always words like our and us were used here at the compound. Despite the brutality, the competition, there was an us vs. them mentality to the very way the instructors spoke; all designed to include. Indoctrinate.

  We. Us. Ours.

  Lying on the mats of the training center, barely able to breathe around the stitch in her side, Selina focused. Tried to calm her raging heart and get up.

  “Too slow,” Tigris hissed, and launched herself upon Selina.

  She had enough time to raise her arms, to bring up her knees. Enough time to roll up and out of Tigris’s path, but not enough to avoid the sweeping kick that knocked her down again. The blow to the throat that truly ripped the air out of her lungs, then the blow to her stomach that knocked her down for good, curling around herself.


  “Pathetic.” Tigris had laughed at her then. Laughed and walked away.

  Selina had hated her ever since. Hated her more when she’d seen some of the other acolytes not be able to walk away. Or breathe. Permanently.

  Nyssa and Talia had never punished Tigris for it—for killing acolytes during training. Nyssa had only declared it natural selection. Talia had just stroked Tigris’s dark hair.

  Selina had imagined ripping out Tigris’s throat more times than she could count.

  Tonight she’d known that Tigris would savor killing her. Luckily, Tigris’s confidence had been her downfall. She hadn’t been prepared for Selina’s show of skill, for Selina to want to win, and it had made the assassin furious to realize she had to go on the defensive. To realize that Selina had been sneaking in extra training at the League, had been studying Tigris herself during every encounter.

  Yet when Selina had slammed her into those steps, accidentally breaking her spine…

  That dark, shredded part of Selina had savored it, too. That blow. The repayment. For all of them.

  Selina did not mourn her. She’d uttered that prayer because…She didn’t know why. Perhaps out of some fool’s idea that if she herself had fallen, she’d want someone to do the same for her. To at least mark that she’d existed—that Selina Kyle had existed.

  But Selina didn’t want to think on it. Think too long on the pieces inside her that were so blood-splattered.

  “We should have ended him when we had the chance,” Harley spat. “Made it look like he and whoever that was killed each other.” A pause. “Who was that woman?”

  “A crony of some boss,” Selina half lied. Tigris did answer to Nyssa and Talia.

  Ivy called over her bike’s engine, “Definitely should have killed him, then.”

  Selina didn’t answer. It had been hard enough to keep the two of them at bay, keep them from seizing their chance to bring down Batwing. They didn’t understand that if the League was closing in, they needed a hero. She needed him. To keep the League away for as long as possible.

  Limited time. She was on limited time.

 
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